I have just, with little pleasure, made it through the first half of Iron Fist, the most recent Netflix show from Marvel, following Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. Like many viewers, I was not only underwhelmed but disappointed. I took issue with many things (lack of diversity, boring and derivative plot, going from disliking to actively hating the main protagonist, etc.) I could talk at length about the shows problems, not excluding the fact that, as one friend unforgettably said, it does sound like the name of a particularly kinky gay pornstar. There is, however, one aspect I take offence to above all others: the fighting in the show, or lack thereof. This is a show all about martial arts, based on a property born from the kung-fu craze of the seventies. After the incredible stunts that Netflix/Marvel already had in Daredevil, now we have a show where the game could be raised even further to some battles that could be works of art to watch. Instead, what we get just about passes as obligatory fluff punch ups in between some boardroom drama. It doesn’t even look like fighting. It looks like badly edited choreography. The show is more concerned with numbingly dumb corporate politics, thought to be fair, they don’t look like corporate politics either, more like vaguely annoyed people in suits who exist for our hero to prove wrong. I cannot fathom who conceived of a kung-fu action series, then decided to filter down the kung-fu action.
When I was a bit younger, I always used to say ‘I don’t like action movies.’ Like most times when someone dismisses an entire genre based on a few experiences they did not enjoy, I was being narrow minded and pretentious. I later saw Die Hard, Kill Bill and more recently, Mad Max: Fury Road and thought it might be better to say ‘I don’t like mindless action movies.’ I later realised that watching a good fight scene is always good fun, provided it is a ‘good’ scene. Now I say ‘I don’t like lazy action movies’ which I think is the phrase I will stick with. The point of the genre is there in the name, guys. There is no point having a fight scene if it doesn’t feel like anyone is fighting.
I’ve watched quite a lot of fight scenes, most especially in Iron Fist, where the shot length averages maybe one or two seconds. In so many films and shows, the camera moves from character to character seemingly at random so you have no idea where anyone is in relation to anyone else. Shots are done from all sorts angles without any follow through and little attention to continuity, meaning characters seem to warp around the room between cuts if you are paying attention. I don’t mind not seeing any spraying blood from a few cuts, though if someone gets sliced and diced I would appreciate maybe just a red smear on the blade. Cram this mess into one scene and you’re not watching action. You’re watching a video game being played by someone else, who won’t tell you the rules.
A lot of people think this is done because more movies want a PG rating, yet it is endemic. Suicide Squad is 15 in the UK and nearly got an R in the states, just look at the pathetic fight scenes in that. By contrast, Captain America Civil War was kept available to younger audiences, yet the airport scene has clearly comprehensible action and keeps track of where everyone is. I think that a bigger reason for these lifeless battles is that big budget media now wants to hire actors based on their star appeal rather than fighting talent. Once you have them on board, the editing room can easily put poor choreography and continuity issues to rest by cutting it in such a way as to hide the fact that we are watching actors, not trained fighters. Of course, with bigger scenes, it can just be the result of a lack of imagination, since those scenes can end up having so many different things to cut to that the studio thinks the audience will never be bored. They would be wrong, but since when has that stopped them? For an example of how wrong this is, compare the start of the game in The Hunger Games to the bathhouse fight in Eastern Promises. In the former, 24 teenagers are fighting to the death whilst the hero, Katniss, gets away from a knife-throwing girl. The camera shakes or cuts rapidly with little focus or close ups, so we get little more than flashes of violence and a disorientating perspective. In the latter, one man, naked and unarmed, is ambushed in a relatively small room by two mobsters with knives. It’s simple, it keeps the shots going so we see what’s happening and doesn’t last too long. It’s also brutal, visceral and it gets you more invested than any CGI or shaky cam ever will.
Granted, those two films are very different in terms of target audience, theme and stakes, so a comparison is not fair. Let’s try something more specific: A group of 5-6 adults fighting a few members of a supernatural army with a hive mind, who feel no pain but are easily damaged, inside a mundane, abandoned room. Compare how the movie Suicide Squad handles this (title Squad against a possessed military force in an abandoned office) to how The Worlds End does it (five former rugby playing and slightly drunk men against five alien robots in the toilets of an English pub.) I can’t even begin to compare, just watch on DVD or find online. Compare the length of the shots, how the scene flows, whether or not you can follow the action or even tell if there is much difference between the various characters fighting styles. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
It’s not a new style of fighting in movies that I am advocating here. Jackie Chan made action masterpieces when he was shooting films in Hong Kong back in the seventies, not just because he could fight for real but because he made the effort in each take clearly visible (in one well known scene in The Young Master, he catches a paper fan in his hand after flinging it mid-fight, in one shot. How did he do that? Over 100 takes, that’s how.) Jackie himself was mainly inspired, not just by previous martial arts actors but Buster Keaton, the man who made a point of never faking gags or stunts – so he always did them himself, for real. The long and short of this is that a man who was making films a hundred years ago could make more exciting action scenes in a comedy film than modern big budget shows and films that are all about action.
So why did Iron Fist think it could cheapen on the fight scenes? Why did they hire Finn Jones, who himself admitted he was not a fighter, for the lead role? Hell, why, when there was already enough controversy about lack of Asian representation in Marvel and controversy about the comic Iron Fist being white, did they hire the whitest guy imaginable? This is a guy lectures an actual Asian American (and later, her students) on the proper ways of kung-fu in her own dojo. You can’t get whiter than that. So if you really want such a white guy leading the show, at least have one who looks like he can take and throw a punch, rather than some stoned middle class hippie kid who is totally into meditation and spirituality man. Oh, and fighting too, right up until a fight starts and his stunt doubles do all the work for him.